By Alex Scott
Bradford City fans are having a pretty good time right now. Yesterday’s surprise reinstatement in the FA Cup formed another swell on the glorious wave we are all riding with abandon. Whilst the Bantams currently stand as one of only two English sides with a shot at a quadruple (Chelsea, for now), and with at least another 30 games to come this season, it’s difficult not to reflect on Tuesday as a denouement. A closing door. The light at the end.
Phil Parkinson, suppressing his characteristic professionalism, relished the scenes the other night as much as anyone. There’s a ‘big’ game to be played on Saturday, a promotion six-pointer at Southend, but (to his credit), he let his players; his fans, and himself enjoy the moment for what it was. Forget everything before and everything after. Seeing him beam in front of the nation’s eyes was a wonderful moment, one that will hopefully headline his legacy.
I can probably speak for everyone here when I offer him a life contract. But I also wouldn’t prevent him from leaving if that is his wish. What he has given us this year can’t be quantified. He’s made us believe again. Made us smile for the first time in who knows how long. Phil Parkinson deserves to do whatever he likes, and with his contract winding down, and his star bouncing back to its highest point, I wouldn’t begrudge him a move for a second.
Even if he wanted to temper things though, it wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t just another game. Not for him. Not for them. Not for us. It was so much more than that.
Amidst the spectacular scenes and sounds, a game did take place, and whilst it followed a similar path to the Wigan encounter last month, it was much more than that. With the TV, the bright lights, the atmosphere, it was something out of our imaginations. Beyond. It’s tough to even class it as a ‘game’. My stock response yesterday when confronted by wide-eyed colleagues asking me how I felt was “I dunno, it just doesn’t seem real, you know?” And it still doesn’t.
The ‘plucky, organised underdog frustrates and upstages lauded opposition’ narrative played itself out to perfection, and featured prominently in the few column inches not reserved for ‘Wenger Out’. But that isn’t the most interesting takeaway from the Bradford perspective; it’s almost mundane when held up against our story. The eyes of redemption, the city on the rebound, the lifting of the hex. The discovery of the road not travelled.
The stadium was rocking like it is in our successful parallel universe. Tuesday night was the realisation of our communal dream at Wolves. Nights like that. The way it was supposed to be. And whilst a game took place on the field, in the stands it was anything but. It was a dream. A surreal haze. A twilight zone in our minds. Living the lives we could have lived. The road not travelled.
With regards to Phil Parkinson, to Bradford City, to ‘football’, it was our definitive ‘all-in’ moment. After all this time, this is it. Like all victims of broken hearts, we’ve been reticent to let ourselves feel again, live again. And that extended heartache, the perpetual anguish and fear has grown to outline our relationship with the club. Even when things are going right, they are merely a step on the path to it going wrong again. It isn’t a fun way to live as a football supporter. The cynicism pervades. You can understand it and you can’t escape it.
This past year has shown signs of life, glimmers of a new hope, and perhaps we would have gotten there eventually. But a night like Tuesday brings it to the point. This is it. Bradford City are fourth in League Two, with the best home record in the division, witnessing unprecedented success in all the cup competitions, with the most likeable group of players I can remember. And we just beat fucking Arsenal in a League Cup Quarter Final.
This is the best manager we’ve had since Paul Jewell. This is (relatively) the best team we’ve seen since 1998/99. This is real. This is happening.
Some front running fans will claim to have known since Ross Hannah’s equaliser away at Morecambe that we were onto a winner. Others will cite the James Hanson and Nahki Wells fuelled winning run over last Christmas. The signs have been there for a while, whilst the doubts and anxieties remained. Looking back over the past decade, it’s understandable. We’ve witnessed a lifetime’s worth of false dawns. Even this season as we flew out of the gates, there was an apprehension. This was hardened by the devastating injuries to our first choice pairings at centre back and on the flanks. Typical City. We can’t even send a bloody fax off in time. It took a night like Tuesday.
Rocking gently in a semi conscious haze on the 6:20am to King’s Cross Wednesday morning, the enormity of the moment began to settle in, and I struggled to comprehend my feelings. The joy I felt went beyond what I expected. The adrenaline and the emotion were one thing, but it was far more complex. It went deeper than that, tapping into a part of me I didn’t think existed.
The roars and cheers throughout felt like a visceral catharsis. For all of us. Each scream, each cheer releasing the demons which have been building up for all these years. This was our moment. The weight upon our shoulders, the shackles around our ankles, all released in one glorious succession of moments, and we were walking on air. I don’t remember much between the final rattling of Matt Duke’s post and going to sleep, if anything at all.
The closest I got to the feeling was “vindication”. I felt vindicated. Evidence that it had all been worth it. What’s more is that it was worth it for everyone else, everyone who has been there before me, who’ve witnessed everything and stayed. They still believe, and they got to feel like I felt Tuesday night. A moral vindication, a justification, payback. All that baggage made that moment different, more intense, more personal. The light at the end.
But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became.
The chipped shoulders-out vindication isn’t a look which sits comfortably with me, personally. It doesn’t feel right either. It demeans that magical night to tie it together with that baggage.
What’s more the acceptance of such a feeling implies I was expecting it, or at least hoping for it at some point. Like the past decade was just a penance we paid for future glories. A communal martyrdom to ‘earn’ that feeling from the other night. Which also demeans those years as mere time we were logging, an investment. Which misses the point of being a football fan completely.
All of this goes against everything I say I, or we say we, stand for. We…I, do this because of the journey, the ups and the downs, not the outcome. Otherwise I’d be a Man Utd fan. I, we haven’t all been there these last few years, watching, feeling, hurting, because we wanted a chance, one day, to feel like we did on Tuesday. We stay because we want to be a part of something, part of a journey.
So it shouldn’t be a feeling of vindication. Tuesday night needs to be judged in isolation for what it was: a magical night which none of us will forget. One of the greatest nights in our club’s fabled and tortured history. We, I, need to find a way to separate it from all the baggage which defines the relationship with the club.
It’s pride. Pride in the players, the coaching staff, everyone at the club, the great city of Bradford. But further, more importantly, a pride in us, the fans. Bradford City were the top football story on BBC Sport for two straight days this week. All the newspapers were there, the bright lights of the national media, plus Don and Beags, all obviously praising the team, but the fans as well. The backs-to-the-wall lower league upset wasn’t without precedent, but the pictures, the sounds, the vibrations of 20,000 people supporting a side long forgotten about in the national psyche was the real story. Despite everything we were still here.
For the newcomers and the tortured souls, we all felt that, together in that moment. Forget about ‘despite everything’. That will come in its own time. We’ve a lifetime to get promoted, to make money, to move back up to where our burdensome facilities dictate we belong. Some things are special, just for what they are and nothing more.
It isn’t about vindication, it isn’t about making up for all that time. That time will always be with us. It was worth doing in its own right. Tuesday night was different. It wasn’t just another game. It was an experience. It was magical. It was a dream. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had watching football.